This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 12 states:
XII. Of Good Works
Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s Judgement; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.
The classic competition between faith and works finds endless attention among scholarly theologians, popular authors, and ordinary Bible-readers alike. We know from some parts of the Bible that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24), yet we know from other parts of the Bible that “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). This apparent contradiction has caused endless consternation among many a Christian, as well as wholesale splits between different traditions of Christianity.
Article 12 sets out a classic Reformation answer to this question. Good works, it says, “are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification”. As discussed in Article 11, justification is God’s pronouncement of innocence upon a sinner according to the grace and merit of Jesus, not according to the merit (worthiness) of the individual. Article 12 here reinforces that notion: our good works “cannot put away our sins” because good works “are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification”.
Our good works are not meaningless, however. They are “pleasing and acceptable to God,” for they reveal “a true and lively Faith” within. This makes them useful to our fellow Christians, also, since the fruit of good works is one way we discern a person who has been justified by God’s grace. This may seem to demote good works to a mere proof of change, but there something special to be noted in the statement that our works are “pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ”. Our good works are no mere add-on to our salvation, they are integral! Even though God’s act of justification is pronounced before our good works are even possible, those good works are indeed a necessary fruit of justification. It is in light of that big picture that St. James was able to write “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” and why St. Paul wrote that we are saved “by the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
One final distinction that is helpful to note in this sort of discussion is that “salvation” is bigger than justification. Justification is a legal term, denoting the declaration of innocence over an otherwise-condemned sinner. Salvation, however, encompasses the calling of God that precedes justification, the regeneration and rebirth in the Holy Spirit, the life of sanctification (growth in holiness), and the final resurrection and glorification and perfection of our souls and bodies. Good works are our participation in this overall process, particularly in sanctification. Again, even sanctification is ultimately the gracious work of the Holy Spirit upon us. But, as a parent teaching a baby how to walk, God does want us to move our legs while he holds us up. Not that we will someday be able to “walk in good works” without God, simply that one day the workings of his grace will be completed in us, and this life is our time of training (or discipleship) for the eternal life to come.